Sedan and the A.E.F.

(Reprinted from Army Nurses of World War I: Service Beyond Expectations)

The city of Sedan lies approximately eighty miles northeast of Paris along the French-Belgian border.  Because Sedan served as a crucial supply center for the vast majority of the western front, both sides competed intensely for Sedan throughout the war.

The German Army conquered Sedan in a major offensive in 1914.  Between 1914 and 1918, the city served as major German ammunition and supply depots.  Also, Sedan with Carignan and Mézières formed a hub for the railroad line that cut across northern France.  The Germans used this railroad to send over 250 supply trains a day for their soldiers scattered across France.  Because of Sedan’s strategic importance, the Allies launched two major campaigns to recapture Sedan; the St. Mihiel Offensive, and later, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Between September 12, 1918, and September 16, 1918, the Allied Forces attacked a triangular area in the German lines known as the St. Mihiel salient.  The Germans had fortified the area with complex trenches, extensive amounts of barbed wire, machine-gun nests, and numerous artillery emplacements.  However, the German soldiers in the salient were second-grade, and the German leaders started to evacuate just as the attack hit.  After two days of fighting the Americans succeeded in capturing the objective as well as 8,000 prisoners and 443 guns.

After the fall of the St. Mihiel salient, the victorious Allies halted their advance—a decision that historians have since criticized for ignoring a golden opportunity.  A young general named Douglas MacArthur reported he could very easily capture Metz, an important city that the Germans left undefended for a short window of time.

MacArthur was not allowed to seize Metz because the American soldiers in the area had little experience and another Allied offensive in the Argonne region was about to begin.  Meanwhile, the Germans swept in to fortify and hold it for the rest of the war until the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.  Had MacArthur and the Allies taken Metz, they might have been able to cut the Strasbourg-Lille rail link and effectively destroy German communications.  The capture of Metz might have also allowed the Allies to march easily on Sedan or avoid Sedan altogether, possibly winning the war entirely.

Following upon the heels of the St. Mihiel Offensive was another Allied campaign known today as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  The Allies hoped to capture the railroad running through Sedan and met with some success after much hard fighting.   As the Allies converged on Sedan at the beginning of November 1918, the Allied soldiers belonged to two major armies: the American First Army and the French Fourth Army.  The Allies agreed that the French soldiers should be the first into the city (because of the French connections to Sedan), but General Pershing and the Americans moved quicker than the French and received approval to enter Sedan before the French.

As the Americans assaulted the city, orders were confused and chaos ensued with phone lines becoming tangled and Americans accidentally firing on other Americans.  On November 8, the Allied High Command decided that the French should assault the city like they had initially planned.  However, before this attack could take place, the Great War—which had raged for four years and which claimed the lives of almost an entire generation of Europeans—came to an end on November 11, 1918.  On that day, leaders of each side met in a railway car in the middle of the Compiègne Forest to sign an armistice, an agreement by all sides to stop fighting.

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